NERC Advanced Training Course

Statistical models for wildlife population assessment and conservation


9-13 January 2017


University of Kent


Deadline for applications: 5pm on Friday 14th of October 2016.

We have 30 fully-funded places (inc. travel and accommodation) and priority is given to NERC-funded PhD students but if spaces remain we are able to offer the funded places to other PhD students and early-career researchers.

Please e-mail a completed Application Form to

Within the environmental sector there is currently a shortage of practitioners equipped with the statistical modelling skills to carry out reliable population assessments. Consequently, environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and development mitigation projects often use population assessment protocols that are not fit-for-purpose1. The skills shortage arises because (1) recent advances in statistical models for population assessment are largely confined to the academic sector with little penetration to the end-users; and (2) although many postgraduate programmes have a statistical modelling training component, this often fails to expose PhD students to new models in the area and the potential applications these have for conservation practice2. This training programme will provide a cohort of PhD students and early career researchers/practitioners with the relevant modelling skills required for a career that involves wildlife population assessment for conservation.


  1. Griffiths, Foster, Wilkinson and Sewell (2015). Science, statistics and surveys: a herpetological perspective. Journal of Applied Ecology. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12463
  2. McCrea and Morgan (2015). Analysis of capture-recapture data. Chapman & Hall/CRC Press, Florida.


Proposed programme of the course


The workshop will focus on ecological questions that arise in conservation practice and use real case study data. Training will include individual-based models, such as capture-recapture, but will also embrace scenarios more frequently used in EIA, such as batch-marked, presence/absence, site occupancy and counts. Applications will include newts, butterflies, birds, bees, beetles, ibex and bats. Each module will be accompanied by a practical computer session using R and each module builds on the last so that delegates build a portfolio of statistical skills.


Training outcomes:  By the end of the course, attendees will be able to:

  • construct, interpret and fit relevant stochastic models, use different methods of inference, understand the pros and cons of Bayesian and classical methods and the use of prior information;
  • personalise R code to undertake modelling of their own research data;
  • understand data needs for animal population assessments for EIAs and conservation;
  • analyse animal population data to meet both conservation and commercial needs.

Draft timetable:


Module 1: Background in statistics and R (Monday PM)
  • Likelihood and probability theory
  •  Bayesian inference
  • Basic model assessment (AIC/absolute GOF)
  • Practical session: Introduction


Plenary session and Round table discussions (Tuesday AM)


Module 2: Understanding statistical uncertainty (Tuesday PM)
  • Imperfect detection
  • Data types, relationships and summaries.
  • Introduction to data sets/case studies (bees, butterflies, newts, mallards etc)
  • Practical session: converting format of data and summarising complex data.


Module 3: Model fitting and assessment (Wednesday AM+PM)
  • Estimating abundance
  • M0,Mtbh, removal
  • CR/RR
  • Occupancy
  • Practical session: model fitting, optimisation, use of packages.


Module 4: Modern challenges (Thursday AM)
  • Citizen science data
  • Small/sparse data and big data issues
  •  Cost-effectiveness in study design and statistical power.
  • Informative prior information.
  • Practical session: power analyses and adapting models


Module 5: Advanced stochastic modelling (Thursday PM)
  • modelling movement
  •  state uncertainty
  • species interaction
  • spatial models
  • integrated modelling
  • Practical session: use of Rjags, Bayesian graphical models using MCMC.


One-to-one consultation sessions (Friday AM)


Module 6: Advanced aspects of R (Friday AM)
  • Practical session: self-lead worksheets
  • Multistate examples
  • PR diagnosis
  • Diagnostic GOF testing


Byron, Diana, Eleni, Emily, Ming and Takis attended the International Statistical Ecology Conference in Seattle, 28th June to 1st July.

On 28th June Eleni talked about Open models for removal data, in a contributed session on Abundance Estimation. Talk Slides


In the same session Emily talked about Extensions of recent models for butterfly abundance.

On 29th June Byron gave a Plenary talk with the title Citizen Science, Trick or Treat.

Also on 29th June Takis gave a talk on Efficient, flexible estimation of time to decay signs in indirect survey methods, in the second contributed session on Abundance Estimation.

In the same session Ming gave a talk on New removal approaches for reptile and amphibians.

Then Eleni gave her second talk on Count data collected using a robust design, in the third session on Abundance Estimation. Talk Slides


Later the same day Diana gave a talk on Extensions to the Hybrid Symbolic-Numeric Method for investigating identifiability in a contributed session on Capture-Recapture. Talk Slides




Paper: Parameter redundancy in discrete state-space and integrated models

Diana and Rachel’s Paper, Parameter redundancy in discrete state-space and integrated models, is available online early in the Biometrical Journal at

Abstract: Discrete state-space models are used in ecology to describe the dynamics of wild animal populations, with parameters, such as the probability of survival, being of ecological interest. For a particular parametrization of a model it is not always clear which parameters can be estimated. This inability to estimate all parameters is known as parameter redundancy or a model is described as non-identifiable. In this paper we develop methods that can be used to detect parameter redundancy in discrete state-space models. An exhaustive summary is a combination of parameters that fully specify a model. To use general methods for detecting parameter redundancy a suitable exhaustive summary is required. This paper proposes two methods for the derivation of an exhaustive summary for discrete state-space models using discrete analogues of methods for continuous state-space models. We also demonstrate that combining multiple data sets, through the use of an integrated population model, may result in a model in which all parameters are estimable, even though models fitted to the separate data sets may be parameter redundant.